ONLY the crossbar at Seaview prevented Tommy Wright bringing the County Antrim Shield to the Warden Street Showgrounds in his first season as Ballymena United manager.
After Kenny Shiels' contract as Ballymena manager wasn't renewed at the end of the previous season - the United board appointed former-Limavady United boss Tommy Wright at the end of May 2005.
Former Northern Ireland goalkeeper, Wright, acted quickly and within days brought in Gary Haveron from Coleraine and Craig McClean from Ballyclare Comrades. In June he again bolstered his squad by signing winger Stuart King and goalkeeper Gregg Shannon both from Linfield and also Ards midfielder Aidan Watson. Wright also raided his former club, Limavady United, for striker Vincent Sweeney.
It wasn't all one way as goalkeeper Robert Robinson was first out the exit door at the Braid - joining Newry City. Free-scoring midfielder Oran Kearney moved to Linfield and Justin McBride, Joe Gray, Jamie Marks and Eddie Hill were all deemed surplus to requirements.
Wright began his tenure with a 2-1 friendly win away to Letterkenny Rovers in July; by this stage he had compiled his backroom staff which included former Sunderland and Linfield midfielder Jim Grattan as his assistant. Former members of his Limavady United coaching staff Jeff Montgomery and David Dorrian joined as first-team coach and reserve team manager, respectively.
The domestic season started with a 1-0 defeat to Portadown at Shamrock Park in the opening game of the League Cup campaign. Defeat to Newry City the following week effectively ended hopes of qualification from the League Cup group; and despite not losing any of the remaining four games the Braidmen failed to get by the first hurdle.
Strikers Kevin Kelbie (Glentoran) and Johnny Steele (Rochester Rhinos) where brought in to add goals to the side, and it was the latter who gave Ballymena United an opening day win of their league campaign against Larne. However, that proved the highlight of the talented Steele's time at the Showgrounds, as he returned to America and the team's form dropped dramatically losing three league games on the bounce.
A very relieving one goal victory away to Armagh City at the end of October seemingly kick-started the Sky Blues' season as it was followed up a few weeks later with a stunning 4-3 victory over Dungannon Swifts at the Showgrounds as the disappointing Rory Hamill scored the winning goal and was starting to show form in a United shirt.
Impressive victories over Ards, Lisburn Distillery and Cliftonville throughout the Autumn were undone by embarrassing capitulations against Limavady United and Portadown - the six goal mauling by Ronnie McFall's Portadown in early December was particularly harsh viewing for United supporters on a cold Friday night.
The following game against Glentoran at the Oval, seen the emergence of a new terrace hero. Scottish forward Kevin Kelbie, who had failed to make any sort of impact at Warden Street since his deadline-day move from Glentoran. He came off the bench at half-time to score a last-minute winner as Ballymena won 2-1; and in doing so became the first United team to win at the East Belfast venue in eight years.
The Boxing Day victory at the Ballycastle Road was the catalyst for a nine game unbeaten run which propelled Tommy Wright's young side up the Irish League table and also into the final of the County Antrim Shield. Early round victories over Wakehurst and Cliftonville setup a semi-final clash against neighbours Larne - but an in-form Kevin Kelbie notched a hat-trick to send the Sky Blues into a final showdown with Linfield at Seaview.
A jam-packed Seaview witnessed Kevin Kelbie's eighth goal in five games, to put Ballymena ahead and fans could have been forgiven for dreaming that the trophy famine was about to end at Warden Street. David Jeffrey's Linfield equalised but with the scores level Kevin Kelbie hit the crossbar with the goal at his mercy. In typical fashion, Linfield won the match and the Shield - it was scant consolation that the Windsor Park Blues won a domestic 'Clean Sweep' during the 2005/06 season.
Confidence plummeted after that final and despite January purchases of Paul Brown from Sligo Rovers and Gerard Rowe from Shelbourne (loan) - Tommy Wright's side amazingly went on a nine-game run without a win directly after their nine game unbeaten streak. This run seen Lisburn Distillery dump the club out of the Irish Cup after a Sixth Round replay and also lose valuable ground for a European place - as Dungannon Swifts eventually clinched the Intertoto Cup place which Ballymena seemingly had sown up at one stage.
Two wins in the final few games against Coleraine and Institute, respectively, secured a sixth-place finish - a commendable feat considering it was United's highest league finish since 1998. Also, an encouraging first season for Wright at the Showgrounds with a very young and inexperienced side.
Some of the Ballymena United young stars got their reward for their efforts during the season as Craig McClean and Aidan Watson were short-listed for the Football Writers' Young Player of the Year - however, both lost out to Glentoran's Phillip Simpson. With Albert Watson and William McFrederick also getting called into the Northern Ireland Under-21 squad in May 2006 - the future was certainly looking bright at the Showgrounds.
Season Review by Neil Coleman